Like many entrepreneurs who launched catalog businesses in bygone eras, the late Eddie Smith, whom I had the pleasure of knowing during the ’90s and early 2000s, stuck firmly to a number of ironclad principles during his 50-plus years at the helm of the National Wholesale catalog.
Unlike many businessmen who sold out a life’s work to large conglomerates, brought on management “experts,” or even passed their beloved babies on to their own flesh and blood — as you’ll read in this month’s cover story — Smith’s baby continues to thrive, even since his passing in 2007.
Upon visiting the Lexington, N.C., headquarters of this mature women’s hosiery and apparel catalog in November, I came away feeling like Smith was still there in much more than mere spirit. It was downright eerie. I don’t believe in this stuff, but if they were to hold a seance, I think Eddie would make an appearance.
This man made, and left, his imprint on every single aspect of this business, from product selection (hooo-leee! there are that many different kinds of panty hose?) to catalog creation, to the proper training and functionality of fulfillment and call-center staffers. And speaking of staff, he considered them all family.
It’s been nearly four years since Eddie stepped away from day-to-day operations. He suffered a stroke in 2005 and later developed cancer, which eventually did him in at age 89 — many years too soon for a man that active. (Among his countless endeavors, Eddie jogged three miles every morning, well before most alarms were buzzing.)
Not Lonely at the Top
Eddie’s daughter, Lynda Swann, is now in charge, but she’s hardly alone at the top. She’s a well-groomed leader. But few things she tells you aren’t accompanied with a “that’s how my dad would’ve done it” or “wanted it done.” Her mission, to carry the company forward precisely the way her father dictated for so many years, isn’t merely out of love and respect for him. It’s because Smith constantly adapted to the times. His approach worked in the ’50s, and it still works today.
As for her supporting cast members — and she likely won’t care for me calling them that since it’s truly an ensemble at the top — they’re all hers and Eddie’s family. Literally. OK, not in the maternal sense of the word, but that’s how Eddie, and now Lynda, treated everybody who worked at National Wholesale. And Lynda was sure to introduce me to virtually every member of that family, an extraordinarily close-knit group that still adheres to the mottos Eddie preached throughout his lengthy tenure.
As for what those mottos were, how Eddie ingrained them in so many people and what you can take away from this long-standing business that keeps thriving, you’ll have to make your way through this issue and read that for yourself, beginning on pg. 12.